Sometimes I think I shouldn’t stop writing this blog as it seems that whenever I do someone significant to TV dies. This time, though, ‘significant’ doesn’t cut it, and all superlatives are understatements. It’s difficult to quantify what James Garner – who died of natural causes this July at the age of 86 – meant to television. Not only was he around during TV’s formative years and helped the medium come of age, he had the rare distinction of playing two of the greatest characters to ever grace the small screen. Obituaries both written and forthcoming will doubtless talk about what an incredible movie star Garner was (and indeed he was) but I always thought there was a certain dailiness about his performances that made him perfect for television, and may help explain why he kept returning to TV while his film roles continually deflated the grandiosity of the cinema.
Garner’s first major television role was drifter gambler Bret Maverick in Warner Brothers’ western dramedy series Maverick, which he played throughout the late fifties. The show is a one-word argument against FCC chairman Newton Minnow’s notion of TV in that era as a ‘vast wasteland’. It was anti-formulaic, adult, challenging and irreverent, and Garner’s humour, bathos and moral ambiguity in the part had a lot to do with that. Essentially a thinking man’s riposte to the branding-iron western TV series (they didn’t have cookie-cutters on the frontier!) that overpopulated the networks at the time, Maverick was an early indication of the quality of television that could be achieved working within popular genres. While Bret Maverick certainly paved the way for television antiheroes like Tony Soprano and Walter White, Garner saw him more as a ‘reluctant hero’ and played it accordingly. It was that kind of nuance that made the difference.
In Garner’s 2011 autobiography The Garner Files – itself a classic in literary understatement – the actor’s usually low-key prose cannot downplay the importance of Maverick to the TV of its day:
‘In its own way, Maverick was “anti-establishment”. It gave voice to viewers’ dissatisfaction with the predictable, button-down TV of the ‘50s, with its black-and-white morality. Maverick explored gray areas by questioning the authority of the conventional Western hero. After Maverick, it was hard to watch those steely-eyed cowboys without laughing.’
It’s worth remembering that fifties American TV was highly praised for its character drama in anthology form like Philco Television Playhouse and Studio One, and so to offer this kind of psychological complexity in the form of a western series – more often regarded as the cultural antithesis of the anthology drama – was radical. It also showed that TV could do something worthwhile with the western formula.
That would be enough for most actors, but unbelievably Garner did it all over again as every-slob private eye Jim Rockford in Universal’s detective series The Rockford Files which ran throughout the late seventies. One of the most perfectly-made shows in television history, Garner’s lastingly lovable lead performance put it over the top, and into perpetual syndication. The actor’s iron rule over his Cherokee Productions also ensured that Universal never dragged the show back to the studio lot, and kept it as freewheeling as the Southern California locations we saw onscreen. The Rockford Files’ tone-perfect medley of comedy, drama and thriller was a template for quality US television to come, and all that was there in Garner’s performance. Never humourless nor too frivolous; a hero you could believe in because he didn’t believe in it himself. Unlike most sanctimonious American TV protagonists, Garner never pretended Rockford wasn’t out for himself.
Despite a string of memorable and game-changing performances in a host of movies, Garner always went back to TV in the end. Whether it was the Rockford Files TV movies (which, oddly, didn’t disgrace the original), a series of beloved Polaroid commercials with actress Mariette Hartley harking back to the repartee of romantic screwball comedies, or replacing the late John Ritter as the patriarch on sitcom 8 Simple Rules. Rather than trashing television as so many Hollywood movie stars have, he decided instead to make it better, either by seeking out the best material or improving drastically on the worst. After Garner was through with television, it didn’t look like there was a distinction between TV and the movies any more. It would be impossible to find two better performances in television than Bret Maverick and Jim Rockford, but James Garner always meant more than the sum of his parts.